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The first question people asked me when I told 'em we were going to Panama is: "Why?!!" Well we had some Delta miles to burn and after checking on all of Delta's new destinations that were recently added, we decided on Panama. Many Central and South American cities seemed quite undesirable due to the high crime rate and State Department warnings. No such warnings were in place for Panama City. Ironically I never really thought about Panama City until Delta started service there and I bothered to start checking it out. And I'm glad I did!

Our trip to Panama City started on a Thursday night with the compulsory hop from our home base in Detroit to Delta's World Port in Atlanta. From there it was a 3 hour Boeing 757 flight to Panama City at night.

If you know me then you know I LOVE to fly and this was a great flight. We flew along the west coast of Florida but it was so clear that I could easily see the bright glow in the sky on the other side of the state created by the Miami/Ft. Lauderdale area. Next came the lights of the keys and Key West. Then a really neat sight came into view. Cuba--at night---with the cane fields burning. There were more than a dozen of little glowing bright red orange "commas." A short time later we were over the top of Grand Cayman and from there, nothing but darkness until we crossed into Panama.

The airport in Panama City, Tocumen, is quite modern and efficient. Clearing immigration and customs was a breeze and we met our guide (more on that outstanding service later) and trekked to our hotel - the 5 star Caesar Park Hotel.

The hotel was located right at the edge of the Pacific Ocean. Initially we requested an ocean view figuring the city view wouldn't be much. After all, we figured that this would be a pretty small and unimpressive town. How wrong we were!!!!!

The next morning we looked out our windows (we were on the 12th floor) and the ocean was just kind of hazy and not really very pretty or blue. We went to the 14th floor for our complimentary breakfast that came with the room and then saw the skyline for the first time. Wow!!! This was no little shantytown, third world place!

The skyline of Panama City reminded me very much of Honolulu's skyline. Yep, that many high-rise buildings the tallest of which was 50 stories! Most of the buildings were white, probably to keep the heat at bay. It DOES get beastly hot in Panama City, especially during March when we were there. It's probably their hottest month with daytime temps in the upper 80's and low to mid 90's.

We met up with our guide (again, more on that great service coming up) and took off on a tour of the city and the famous Panama Canal. We visited the canal area first and were treated to a picture perfect view of a large Arco tanker passing through one of the three locks along the canal-the Miraflores locks. Locomotive engines guide the ships through the extremely narrow locks although the ships run under their own power. The locomotives are simply there to help and they do this by attaching steel cables to the ships. Four locomotives assisted the Arco Sag River tanker though this particular lock. 

The actual canal isn't all that impressive, really. It's the engineering and scientific study that blew me away. All of the locks are operated without the use of any pumps! Artificial lakes were constructed to supply the constant supply of water needed to raise and lower the ships. And the system works fast. We watched the Arco Sag River go down by 27 feet in just 8 minutes! The canal stretches about 50 miles through the narrowest part of Panama.

The cost of passage is pretty impressive. The average ship pays about 44-thousand dollars to make the trip. The most expensive fee ever paid was around 141-thousand dollars by a huge passenger cruise ship. The cheapest fee ever paid was a whopping 36 cents. Yep, some guy actually swam through the canal and the charge is based on gross weight! Guess he must have been a skinny little guy.

If you go and I really hope you DO, you must see the canal. Completed back in 1914, it's an amazing engineering accomplishment. And it was costly in terms of loss of life, too. More than 20,000 Frenchmen died during the initial effort before the U.S. took over.

The canal reverted back to Panama at the end of 1999. Locals were worried that once the U.S. left, salaries for canal workers would go way down. So it's with mixed emotions that the Panamanians said "goodbye" to us Yanks.

Click here to learn more about the Panama Canal.

Our tour on Friday also included a thorough city tour including the old section of the city--Casco Viejo. This is the old colonial section of town and parts of it look very much like the French Quarter of New Orleans only all run-down, dingy and downright dangerous. You wouldn't want to spend much time there on your own but with a tour guide we felt safe. It probably looks like the French Quarter in New Orleans because the French built it a long time ago.

We also toured the modern, bustling modern part of the city and had a great lunch at a little grill restaurant called Jimmy's. It's highly recommended and not far from the Caesar Park Hotel.

After a night's rest it was off on our second and final day of touring. This time we arranged to drive through the country from the Pacific side to the Caribbean side. If the traffic is good and you don't loiter along the way, this trip can be banged out in just an hour and twenty minutes. In our case, we took our time.

We stopped at a rain forest and walked a short distance into the jungle. It was really, really neat. Our guide thought nothing of a huge termite's nest measuring about 20 feet by 50 feet! It looked like somebody had excavated the land digging it all up. And along the way I glanced up and saw a very strange bird's nest hanging down off of a palm tree and recognized it from a nature film I had seen. Our guide wasn't a bird expert and I couldn't remember what kind of a bird's nest it was, but here we were actually looking at some very interesting things.

We headed next to Portobelo not far from Colon where we toured a bunch of old forts and had a great lunch right on the Caribbean Sea. By the way, Colon has an extensive duty free shopping area but otherwise it's BAD--- as in dangerous---as in---DON'T GO THERE!

While heading back to the city my daughter, Christie asked me if we might see some exotic birds Panama is famous for like Toucans. I told her we'd probably have to venture miles into the jungle to see them. But our driver overheard and intervened saying even Toucans can be spotted in protected city parks along with howler monkeys and other little critters! About the only exotic birds we saw that we could identify were large bright green parrots flying around. We watched several from our hotel room.

Our final meal in Panama City came at a place called La Toja and it was quite good. Great fresh seafood including shrimp, jumbo shrimp, squid, octopus, and the local favorite fish--Corvina. The corvina is from the sea bass family and was GREAT! 

Prices are very favorable in Panama. A gourmet meal at a fine restaurant for three with wine came to just $65. Taxis are cheap and the drivers seem honest. If you don't speak Spanish (and we didn't) communicating can be an interesting challenge. At La Toja, nobody in the restaurant spoke much English but everything on the menu was in English and Spanish so we got along just fine.

The people seemed quite nice, overall, but the drivers were BAD. On our way to the airport Sunday morning just as the sun was coming up a van pulled out right and I mean RIGHT in front of us. Our driver skillfully maneuvered our late model Taurus to the right...but then as we skidded and to the horror of our driver…we were skidding right toward four ladies waiting for a bus. Again, though, he skillfully caused the car to skid around the women and we made no contact with humans or machines. Whew!!! That was a close one! I couldn't help but notice the driver make the sign of the cross following the near mishap.

City busses in Panama City are great. They're all just school busses decorated with the loudest colors and sparkles you've ever seen. Many even have "pom poms" dangling from the fenders like high school cheerleaders use!

Eco-tourists will LOVE Panama. It has a ton of wild animals and birds to view and some very interesting native tribes including the Kunas.

Now, a word about our outstanding guides while in Panama. Like each trip, I did exhaustive research on this one before leaving. I hit every internet site I could find on Panama and picked up the only book on the country I could find---the Lonely Planet guide to Panama. In that guide, they listed some tour organizations and I e-mailed Ancon Expeditions and arranged for the tour. I asked them to work out a package that would have us picked up at the airport and transferred to our hotel (Hey, coming in around 11pm in a strange country I didn't want to have to trust a cabbie not knowing the lay of the land at that point!), a custom picked tour for each of the full days we were there, and a return to the airport on Sunday morning. They were a little slow confirming details and in fact had not given us a final confirmation on last minute details even after we left the house for the airport here in Detroit. We figured if they showed at the airport in Panama, fine. If not, we'd rough it. Sure enough, they were there with a sign with our name waiting for us outside of the customs clearance area.

If you'd like a great tour guide who will give you a true education while you're there, you can contact Ancon Expeditions at this internet address: ecopanama@sinfo.net. Our contact at this e-mail address was Ancon V.P. Marco A. Gandasequi N. His phone number in Panama is (507) 269-9415. In our case, Ancon actually farmed us out to an independent guy who has his own company and he was GREAT. His name is Jaime A. Diax A. and his address is: Apartado Postal, 6-9394, El Dorado, Panama. His phone number in Panama is (507) 260-7340. He has a 24 hour fax at (507) 236-7373. His friend George also helped us. And by the way, the price includes the guide and a driver in a comfortable and air-conditioned (thank goodness!!!) 8 to 10 passenger mini-van. They have cookie-cutter tours or can arrange a custom visit like we did. In fact, our request was one of the most ambitious they had seen! But hey, we only had two days there and we wanted to see as much of the country as possible. And we will be back!!!

Best time to go to Panama is January through March---their dry season although it's not horrible during the rainy season. Just come prepared for tropical outbursts! Panama is far enough south that hurricanes are usually not a problem.

You might be curious about how the Panamanians feel about Manuel Noriega...right? Well they can't stand him. They view him as a ruthless dictator. He still owns a house in Panama City and locals have beaten it up pretty badly. We also went by the Vatican Embassy where old Manny barricaded himself inside until the U.S. persuaded him to come out in 1989. They did it by terrorizing him with music beamed at the house with loud speakers. Manny lasted several hours through disco tunes but when they switched to rap, it took only three songs before he surrendered!

And this is interesting. While they do have a local currency called the Balboa (their version of George Washington), the American dollar is the official paper money currency and the Balboa is on a par with the dollar. Balboas ONLY come in coins and approximate our coins in size and value. 5's, 10's, quarters, fifty centissimos, etc.

They do have a number of casinos there and I actually won about $140 at our hotel's roulette wheel. How rare?!!!! The two most popular local beers are Balboa and Atlas. I sipped on both and like Balboa the best. Local wines…and by that, I mean wines from the general 'hood (Chile)…were surprisingly good. When was the last time you ordered a bottle of Chardonnay at a fine restaurant and only had to cough up ten bucks for it!

So that's it for Panama. We really enjoyed our visit and would highly recommend it to you. It's NOT a beach type place (other than the lovely San Blas Islands, which we didn't have time to catch on this trip)…and the Pacific Ocean is anything but clean and pristine in Panama City. But Panama is very different, has nice people and offers a lot to see. I'd wager to say it is one of the safer cities in Central America. And I don't know about you, but that's extremely important to me. Also, our daughter, who has been to a lot of places, really raved about Panama. And she's a spoiled brat…ah....a well seasoned traveler!

Currency is the American dollar (paper money) or the Balboa coin or U.S. coins, they're interchangeable. Driving is crazy but on the right hand side like in the U.S. You'll need a passport to get in and out and a Panamanian Tourist Card. The card can be purchased from Delta in Atlanta (or at your airline ticket office at the international departure city for Panama) for 5 bucks. Be sure to get one before you leave to avoid big delays at the airport. FYI-there is a $20 per person departure tax that must be paid at the airport before leaving. Also duty free shops are open 24 hours a day at Panama City's Tocumen International Airport so we were even able to blow some last minute dough at 6am on the morning of our departure!

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